More on R. Soloveitchik’s ‘Emergence of Ethical Man’: A Response to Critics

By Yoram Hazony, September 10, 2012
This is a version of an essay that appeared in the September 2012 issue of Commentary. 
The original article is available to subscribers here.

I had hoped my essay on R. Joseph Soloveitchik’s The Emergence of Ethical Man[1] would spark debate over a book that has suffered surprising and unjustified neglect since its posthumous publication in 2005. This it seems to have done, and I am delighted with all the attention this work is now receiving and will hopefully continue to receive.

That said, I have to admit I’m a bit surprised by the way the argument over the book has developed so far. As is evident from the fourteen letters to the editor printed in response to my essay in Commentary magazine,[2] readers are divided into two broad camps: (i) Those who are willing to believe there is something new and remarkable in the pages of Emergence of Ethical Man, something that is not usually said by Orthodox Jewish thinkers or by anyone else, and that does not appear in a clear systematic fashion in any of the works R. Soloveitchik published during his lifetime. And (ii) those who insist that this is just not true, and that The Emergence of Ethical Man is more or less just an elaboration of whatever else had already appeared in R. Soloveitchik’s writings.

What is it that the latter “No Bombshell” camp wants? When it comes to the really big questions raised by the Rav’s book and discussed in my article, they appear not to have even six inches of common ground on which to stand together: Some say my essay was unnecessary because everybody already knows that R. Soloveitchik’s thought is marked by a systematic naturalism and a rejection of central tenets of medieval Jewish philosophy. Others say exactly the opposite—that my essay is “unprecedented” and that no responsible person has ever said that R. Soloveitchik’s thought is marked by a systematic naturalism and a rejection of central tenets of medieval Jewish philosophy.

What makes these perfectly contradictory positions a single camp is their common commitment to the proposition that basically nothing of unique significance takes place in the pages of Emergence of Ethical Man.[3] To be sure, all of the individuals involved keep affirming that Emergence is an original and important work. But at the same time, I can’t help noticing that they seem almost completely unaware of the questions that The Emergence of Ethical Man was written to resolve. Indeed, an inability to identify the thesis, or even the subject matter, of Emergence of Ethical Man seems to be a disturbingly common among those who have jumped forward to insist there’s no bombshell here.

As Daniel Edelman points out, Emergence is in fact highly distinctive among R. Soloveitchik’s writings in that its subject is an exposition of a theory of human nature (what the Rav calls an “anthropology”). In other words, The Emergence of Ethical Man is not an essay on religious experience, whether Jewish or general—the subject matter of works such as R. Soloveitchik’s Halachic Man, And From There You Shall Seek, and Lonely Man of Faith. It is, in fact, something very different: It is a book aboutnature—almost a book of science. In fact, we might say that The Emergence of Ethical Man is an attempt to rebuild the scientific worldview out of Jewish sources so as to pave the way for a genuinely Jewish science.

The Jewish science that R. Soloveitchik was struggling to describe in The Emergence of Ethical Man does part ways with the conventional scientific worldview on important points. But it agrees with the conventional scientific worldview on at least this: That there is nothing in human experience that requires recourse to the concept of the supernatural. In keeping with this approach, R. Soloveitchik writes that God’s creation of the world in Genesis was a natural event and involved no “supernatural phenomena”;[4] that God’s infusion of life into creatures otherwise made of dead matter is likewise an event that takes place in nature;[5] and the same is true of everything else that is ascribed to God in the biblical and classical rabbinic sources which R. Soloveitchik discusses in this book.

Indeed, in The Emergence of Ethical Man, the word supernatural is used exclusively to describe things that Christians or medieval Jews may believe, but which the Rav sees as alien to classical, authentic Jewish belief. (There appears to be only one exception at the very end of the book.[6] To me this appears to be a slip—a result of the fact that the manuscript was a draft that R. Soloveitchik never edited for publication.)

Lawrence Kaplan questions whether The Emergence of Ethical Man really proposes a completely thoroughgoing naturalism, given that it refers to God as “transcendent.” But one has to be careful here. In this book, at least, the termtranscendent does not refer to things that are supernatural at all. On this issue, R. Soloveitchik closely follows Bergson’sTime and Free Will, which challenges the supposition that the concrete and finite objects of common human experience should be regarded as ultimate reality.[7] Yet neither Bergson nor R. Soloveitchik believe you have to do anything supernatural or believe in anything supernatural to get beyond (or “behind”) these objects and encounter the transcendent and the infinite. Similarly, where the Rav speaks of God as transcending the world of concrete and finite objects, he does not see this as a description of anything violating the order of nature.

Some members of the “No Bombshell” group have no patience for this kind of thing, and have been quoting me as saying that R. Soloveitchik did not believe in miracles or prophecy or the existence or immortality of the soul.[8] But this is nonsense. I have never said or written anything of the sort. R. Soloveitchik plainly believed in miracles, prophecy, and the existence and immortality of the soul, as I wrote in my essay. It is, however, the case that R. Soloveitchik rejects the Greek metaphysics that is often taken as the basis for an understanding of what these things are.

Take, for example, the soul. If you are a good Aristotelian you may wish to say that the human soul is a distinct “substance,” detachable from the body and imperishable. R. Soloveitchik, however, is not a good Aristotelian and he rejects this picture explicitly in the opening pages of Emergence of Ethical Man. But rejecting the medieval concept of the soul is not the same as denying the existence of the soul. The Rav believes in a soul, but he sees it as what C.D. Broad in The Mind and Its Place in Nature (referenced by the Rav at the beginning of Emergence of Ethical Man) calls an “emergent” property of matter.[9] That is, he believes the human soul and human subjectivity are perfectly real and distinguishable from the traditional objects of physics or chemistry, but that they are also properties that emerge in some way from those of the sub-atomic particles studied by the physical sciences.

This is what R. Soloveitchik means when he says that human beings are a “part of nature” whose “ontic essence remains identical” to that of plants and animals.[10] The human soul is dependent upon and “emerges” from the same natural ingredients out of which plants and animals are constituted. (Hence the title given to the book by its editors—the “emergence of ethical man” being a reference to the emergence of human subjectivity from the dead matter described by physics.)

Since the soul is portrayed as an emergent property of matter, it’s no surprise that R. Soloveitchik does not, in this book, permit the introduction of any kind of immortality that is based on the existence of a soul that is detachable and imperishable and that goes on to live in an alternate world after death. Such a concept of the soul would mean returning to the Aristotelian supposition of eternal and imperishable substances. It would, in other words, violate the whole premise of the book!

Which is why it is so strange to have Yaakov Krausz and others accusing me of quoting out of context when I say that R. Soloveitchik sees metaphysical immortality as dependent on the individual’s passing a given historical consciousness to his or her descendents and heirs. In my article, I support this point with a quotation from p. 176 of The Emergence of Ethical Man, and so now there’s been a generalized ransacking of this page in search of ways to prove that my excerpts are sneaky and misleading. I admit it’s a hard page to read and I think there are things here whose meaning we may never understand. (I have a suspicion as to what the Rav’s reference to the “first conquest of death” means, but it is pure speculation. I haven’t found anyone yet who can fully explain this passage.)

But I reject completely the claim that I’ve quoted anything here out of context. On the contrary, if someone is quoting out of context, it is readers who keep trying to get p. 176 say what they want it to say without reference to the fact that it is only one page out of fourteen pages that R. Soloveitchik devotes to painstakingly laying out his theory of historical immortality.[11] And in those fourteen pages the Rav could not be more explicit or more consistent in the view that Abraham’s soul lives an immortal life because it is duplicated in the subjectivity of his descendents and heirs. As R. Soloveitchik writes:

The historical Abraham as a historical personality attained immortality. Yet Abraham did not conquer death in the metaphysical, transcendental sense. His immortality is through and through historical; immortality which consists in [Abraham’s] proximity to a distant future and closeness to a remote past. Immortal is the personality which, incarnated in anticipation of the multitude of a non-existent group, is in turn incarnated by that group in retrospect.[12]

Note that R. Soloveitchik is unequivocal here: He writes that Abraham attained immortality, but that “he did not conquer death in the metaphysical, transcendental sense.” The immortality of Abraham is—in R. Soloveitchik’s own words—“through and through historical.”

Remarkably, this understanding of immortality is not, on R. Soloveitchik’s view, limited to the Bible. Indeed, the Rav attributes this same view to the Talmud on pp. 176-177. Krausz thinks these pages prove that The Emergence of Ethical Man was not ready for publication because R. Soloveitchik here “confuses” the resurrection of the dead in the messianic age with his own theory of a historical immortality rooted in the consciousness of our descendents. But why does Krausz believe R. Soloveitchik is confused? The Rav quotes a Talmudic text (Sanhedrin 90b) and explains that when the rabbis speak here of the resurrection of the dead, they base it on two biblical texts (Ex. 6:4, Num. 18:28) in which our ancestors seem to be promised historical immortality. From this R. Soloveitchik concludes that when the Talmud refers to the resurrection of the dead, it is in fact (at least in this particular passage) invoking a view resembling his own theory of historical immortality.

The reading that R. Soloveitchik is proposing here is not confused at all. It is coherent and clear, and entirely consistent with the conception of man’s nature developed, step by step, from the beginning of The Emergence of Ethical Manthrough its last pages.

I understand that some readers are surprised to find such a view of immortality in a work by R. Soloveitchik. But it is plainly what is written in this book. If we don’t want to accept what is written here as the Rav’s view, at least during the period when he composed this manuscriptthen I think we have to conclude that the text as we have it is not a good guide to what the Rav thought about this issue. I consider this to be a possible, legitimate conclusion—given that we are speaking about an unfinished manuscript, which R. Soloveitchik never went back to put into publishable form, and which he chose not to publish during his lifetime. I do not believe we can rule out the possibility that there were reasons for the Rav’s never having completed and published this manuscript.

This brings us to the issue of whether The Emergence of Ethical Man should have been published posthumously. In my essay, I refer to the posthumous publishing enterprise as “problematic, morally and intellectually.” I didn’t mean this to be a controversial remark. I wrote explicitly that R. Soloveitchik’s family and his students had both approved the publication of Emergence of Ethical Man and that this, among other factors, should count strongly in favor of the project. However, some readers have interpreted my comments as criticism of the editors involved in the project. I obviously should have been clearer on this point. I do believe posthumous publishing poses serious moral and intellectual problems. After all, isn’t the question of whether to reject the author’s title and replace it with a different title (The Emergence of Ethical Man was originally called The Concept of Man) obviously a problem? I say it is. But as far as I can judge, the editors did an excellent job of dealing with the many complex issues they faced. I don’t see any reason to think they acted inappropriately in any way. On the contrary, I believe that on balance the considerations justified publication of The Emergence of Ethical Man.I am personally very grateful that this manuscript came to light, and I believe the editors deserve only to be commended for their efforts.

In short, I stand by the suggestion that The Emergence of Ethical Man is a unique work within the corpus of R. Soloveitchik’s writings. This is because its thesis and subject matter are highly distinctive and address issues that the Rav seems to have treated in a systematic fashion nowhere else. Indeed, it is because of its unique subject matter that The Emergence of Ethical Man is able to provide a sketch of a kind of Orthodox Judaism (and indeed, of religious belief more generally) that will be new to a great many readers—including some who believe R. Soloveitchik could not have held such views.

Can the naturalized understanding of Judaism proposed in The Emergence of Ethical Man be right? R. Soloveitchik makes a surprisingly powerful argument to the effect that philosophical naturalism—if interpreted in light of developments in philosophy over the last century—can be the basis for a more faithful reading of the classical Jewish texts than was possible during the long reign of Aristotelian and Kantian premises through the end of the 19th century. I would hope this naturalized system can receive the careful, thoughtful discussion that the work of a great man, even if it is an unfinished work, deserves.

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[1] “The Rav’s Bombshell,” Commentary, April 2012. An extended and footnoted version appeared in Jerusalem Letters 11, April 2, 2012, under the title “A Bombshell from the Rav.”
[2] These letters appeared in the September 2012 issue of Commentary
[3] Thus in the letters to Commentary, Jordan Cherrick blandly asserts that “The Rav’s central thesis in The Emergence of Ethical Man amplifies some of the themes in [his earlier book] Halakhic Man.” Alex Sztuden says that “Emergence is an extension of the Rav’s writings that emphasize the public, universal ethical aspects of Judaism.” And Gil Student finds that “Clearly, Emergence fits right in with Soloveitchik’s other writings.” 
[4] Joseph B. Soloveitchik, The Emergence of Ethical Man, Michael S. Berger, ed. (New York: Toras Horav and Ktav, 2005), pp. 9-10.
[5] Soloveitchik, Emergence, p. 12.
[6] Soloveitchik, Emergence, p. 183.
[7] Henri Bergson, Time and Free Will (Dover, 2001 [1889]).
[8] See, for example, Gil Student in “Musings,” March 27, 2012
[9] See C.D. Broad, The Mind and Its Place in Nature (Routledge, 2008 [1925]). Cited in Soloveitchik, Emergence, p. 14.
[10] Soloveitchik, Emergence, p. 47. 
[11] Soloveitchik, Emergence, pp. 163-177. 
[12] Soloveitchik, Emergence, p. 169. Emphasis added.

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